Deconstructing Genius: Exhibit Examines Human Creativity

NEW YORK—When we savor the words of Tolstoy or the luminous brushstrokes of Raphael, we often remark on their genius. Genius is a quality that comes through the work, and we know it when we see it, but it can hardly be quantified. Now it is the center of an exhibit. 

Marks of Genius at the Morgan Library and Museum features almost 60 works on loan from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Like the U.S. Library of Congress, the Bodleian is entitled to copies of every book published in the United Kingdom and Ireland, a privilege it has enjoyed since 1610.

The exhibit’s first task is to make our familiar concept of genius—something exceptional and imparted to only a few in history—utterly inadequate. 

Looking into the Latin origin of the word, the exhibition’s introduction informs us that “genius” means “that which is just born”—something essential and inherent in a person or a place. A place?

In ancient Rome, genius simply meant an embodiment of someone’s abilities—in other words, his soul. “Genius loci” refers to the spirit of the place and can be envisioned as an actual entity that guards a locale.

Now that that’s cleared up and you’re thoroughly confused as to what exactly genius is, the exhibition throws all kinds of examples at you. It turns out that there are as many manifestations of genius as there are souls in the world. Generally, human genius—at least the sorts shown in this exhibit—shares a few commonalities.

Genius Takes Sweat

The gallery is full of open books like a flock of birds on the wing. Naturally, bound tomes make up the bulk of the Bodleian’s loans.

The physical act of writing and rewriting is evident everywhere. Erasmus believed thoroughly in the power of the handwritten word. So did Goethe, who collected autographs as if they were little pieces of his favorite thinkers’ souls.

E.B.White said that the best writing is rewriting. Joyce Carol Oates said that authors are always writing, no matter what they are doing. We see examples of both these ideas through a 17,500-word fragment from Jane Austen’s drafts of “The Watsons,” a novel which she never finished; and Kenneth Grahame’s lively fables, which he mailed to his young son each day in order to earn a kid-free vacation with his wife. 

Genius is Collaborative

Historians grapple with the Great Man Theory, the notion that history was shaped by the actions of a few extraordinary figures. This exhibition features the work of some big names, but also aims to dispel the myth of the solitary genius.

Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” may have never happened if she and husband Percy Bysshe Shelley weren’t rained in while visiting Lord Byron in Geneva. The suggestion was made to have a little ghost story writing party, and her draft, scribbled over with her husband’s edits, became the germ of her most famous work.

Genius Crosses Genres

The most engaging work combines right and left brains, picture and word, sound and sight. 

Mendelssohn wrote out the first few bars of his “Schilflied” (Reed song) and then painted in a moonlit lake lined with cattails. The scene describes the subject and mood of the music. It turns out that the composer was also an accomplished watercolorist, and loved painting outdoors as a break from (and inspiration for) music.

Genius is Global

One of the great things about this idea of genius is that it’s recognizable across cultures and despite language barriers. A Japanese hand scroll, or emaki, tells in pictorial form the “Tale of Urashima.” The sparse passages of calligraphy only help to narrate the visuals. 

Ptolemy’s map of the world sits side by side with a couple of Islamic atlases. They conceive of the globe in wholly different ways, but the desire to make sense of the world is evident in each.

Genius Needs Constraints 

A copy of the Quran is opened to a page covered with calligraphy and elaborate geometric ornamentation, a type of art that has developed to perfection in the Islamic world given Islam’s constraints not to depict the human form. 

Genius Changes With the Times

Most of the exhibition deals with the handwritten, hand-drawn, or handmade, but ends with exploring genius in the post-Gutenberg age. 

What’s the use of a beautifully crafted poem, novel, or book if only a handful of people see it? A brilliant idea needs to be spread in order to be of any use—which begs an interesting question: In the age of mass communication, are those who successfully influence popular opinion geniuses of a sort?

If the scope of this exhibition were extended to the present day, the answer might well be yes.

Marks of Genius: Treasures from the Bodleian Library
June 6–Sept. 14

The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Ave.